Nicky Winmar kicks the ball during a clash between St Kilda and Hawthorn in round 19, 1998. Picture: AFL Photos

ST KILDA has finished training at RSEA Park on a chilly Tuesday morning.

Those who have hung around to watch the reserves team train, have a coffee in the café and check out the historical artifacts, are soon in for an unexpected treat.

Elvis is in the house. Or, as he is formally known, Neil Elvis 'Nicky' Winmar.

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Everyone gravitates towards him as he walks through the club's reception area. Players, coaches, staff members and fans. Especially, the fans.


"It's good to see that they still want to say hello," he said after signing the last jumper and posing for the final selfie.

St Kilda hasn't enjoyed as much team success as most clubs, but has had no shortage of superstars.

Winmar sits comfortably among them and is the Saints' newest member of the Australian Football Hall of Fame.

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Winmar landed at Moorabbin in 1987 just as the winds of change were sweeping through the club.

Favourite son Darrel Baldock agreed to leave his farm in Tasmania to become coach and instead of recycling discards from rival clubs, the Saints began to develop their own talent.

They were also fortunate that Winmar, then playing under Mal Brown and Don Haddow at South Fremantle, was one of the last players to sign with a VFL club under the old Form Four system that pre-dated the National Draft.

Nicky Winmar gets a handball away during St Kilda's meeting with Geelong in round 11, 1992. Picture: AFL Photos

Kevin Sheedy was sniffing around trying to get him to Essendon, while West Coast was about to join the competition and had earmarked him for its inaugural 35-player squad.

But he honoured his commitment to the Saints, sparking a love affair between player and club that exists to this day.

He enjoyed a 12-month cameo with the Western Bulldogs to close out his playing career in 1999, but St Kilda is home.

"I was a bit scared and a bit nervous at the start," he said.

"I came over here having watched The Winners on TV, guys like Leigh Matthews would knock a few blokes over.

"They were strong boys. We used to watch and think, 'Whoa!'. We were skinny kids and our development time hadn't come."

Nicky Winmar after the unveiling of his statue at Optus Stadium on July 6, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

The first thing he did when he came to St Kilda was to hit the gym.

"Even though I was 21 when I came over, I was still pretty slim. I got into the weights because I had to be stronger," he said.

"We were dedicated with what we wanted to do."

He played 20 matches in his first year. He was fit, fast and a superb user of the football. He was an excellent mark for his build and height and was an instant favourite of success-starved Saints fans.

"My pace was my main strength," he said.

"And also the way I got the footy, handled it and delivered it. I was always quick. As each week went on, I got better at it. I felt I could play this game."

Nicky Winmar breaks away with the ball during St Kilda's clash against West Coast in round six, 1998. Picture: AFL Photos

And nor did it matter that his home ground had what was universally regarded as the worst playing surface in the League.

"When it got muddy, it did slow the other guys down a bit, but I had some pace," he said.

It also helped that he had some handy players further up the ground to kick to.

Tony Lockett became a star in 1987, kicking 117 goals, while Stewart Loewe began his ascension towards becoming one of the premier centre half-forwards in the League.

"It all started in the middle and the way we went about it," Winmar said.

Nicky Winmar celebrates a goal for St Kilda against North Melbourne in a preliminary final in 1997. Picture: AFL Photos

"We got it out a few times and, if it worked, it worked. The way we delivered the footy, if Lockett was in front, he was going to get it because he was a very strong and powerful man."

Winmar won his first best and fairest in 1989, together with his first All-Australian blazer. The next year, with Ken Sheldon as coach, the Saints started their rise.

They made the 1991 finals for the first time in 17 years and returned there the following year.

"The start of the 1990s were great because we started to develop into a really good side," Winmar said.

"The guys believed in each other, we were mates and we started to beat the sides we didn't think we could beat."

The lure of team success drove Winmar to great heights, but so too did the post-match phone call to his parents, Neil and Meryle, back in Pingelly, Western Australia.

Nicky Winmar playing for St Kilda against Adelaide in the 1997 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

"Every time I played a bad game, my old man would not speak to me for a week," he said.

"I'd ring Mum and she'd say, 'He doesn't want to talk to you. You know why, you let him down and played a bad game'.

"He used to listen and watch all the time. Then he'd get on the phone before the next game and he'd give me a serve.

"He knew footy. He didn't care if I broke even with someone, but he didn't like me losing, even when I played on a tougher opponent or was tagged heavily."

His father was a hard man. "The weekly phone call drove me as much as anything, but it started when I was 14 when I started working in the shearing sheds with him," Winmar said.

"He'd make the boss stop the truck five kilometres from home and make me run the rest of the way after a hard day of shearing.

"I'd ask him, 'What's all this for?' and he'd say, 'You'll find out'. He saw a gift in me with my footy."

By 1993, Winmar was a national figure.

He raised his jumper and pointed to his chest after an afternoon of being racially vilified by Collingwood supporters at Victoria Park.


He didn't remember having done it until he saw photographer Wayne Ludbey's famous picture plastered on the front page of The Sunday Age the following day.

He didn't love all the attention it brought and felt he was fighting a tough and lonely battle until the Michael Long-Damian Monkhorst episode two years later.

"I knew I had support, but what happened to Michael made it stronger."

Nicky Winmar (left) and Michael Long look on during round 20, 1995. Picture: AFL Photos

Winmar believes his best season came in 1995. Another best and fairest and All-Australian selection again.

Two years later, St Kilda made the Grand Final and lost to Adelaide, but with his father gravely ill, Winmar's build-up to the game was less than ideal. His father passed away the night before the game.

"I spoke to him two days before that and I told Mum, no matter what happens, don't ring me before the Grand Final," he said.

"So what did she do? She called me. We lost Dad and I felt very bad that I wasn't there.

"I didn't know what to do, but I just wish the call was made after the Grand Final rather than before."

Nicky Winmar runs with the ball during St Kilda's clash against Adelaide in the 1997 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

His recollection of the Grand Final is understandably murky, but his memories of the time under the coaching of Sheldon and then Stan Alves are clearer.

"Stan was very good and he had a good team," he said.

"We should have gone all the way, but we just couldn't finish it off."

Winmar has thought plenty about what is now a Hall of Fame career and with the wisdom of hindsight would have changed a few things.

"Being on the booze is one. I drank a lot when I played footy. I've been off it for five months now and wish I never did that," he said.

"There's a stage in life when you're a role model and you have to do that right. I tell the young blokes that I've been through all that and that they shouldn't. Football and family should be No. 1."

Winmar, a member of the AFL's Indigenous Team of the Century, is humbled by his latest honour.

"I had so much joy playing footy. To everyone who was part of my life, that's coaches, teammates, friends and supporters, thanks for being there."